Plague Waters: Seeking a Cocktail Cure for an Epidemic
From the bubonic plague to cholera to tuberculosis, people have sought spirited remedies for a range of serious conditions. But did any of these concoctions work?
This time the London doctors were ready for it. It was the beginning of 1665, and the plague—the bubonic kind, as nasty a way to go as nature has yet cooked up—was back, but medical science had finally caught up with it.
The Black Death, as the disease was known, had come to England in the summer of 1348 when a sailor brought it with him from Gascony. For this rat flea-borne bacterial killer, there was no prevention or cure. By the end of the following year, it finally burned itself out and had carried off perhaps half the people of England, give or take ten percent. But that was only round one.
Because the conditions that spread it—filth, basically—were neither properly understood nor alleviated, the plague never really went away, and had a habit of popping up again and again. In 1665, it began slowly but really picked up steam as the warm weather arrived in May. On May 13, London’s “Colledge [sic] of Physicians” took action, releasing a pamphlet with strategies for prevention and recommendations for treatment of the dreaded disease.
While the prevention was tried and true—quarantine, better sanitation (a physician can dream)—the suggested treatments contained something new. Along with a couple of infusions of various bitter herbs in ale or wine, suggested in a can’t-hurt sort of way, there was a detailed recipe for a distilled “Plague-water of Mathias, or Aqua Epidemica.”
By the 1660s, English distillers were beginning to catch up with those of Continental Europe. A beer-drinking island nation ruled by a wine-drinking aristocracy, England had betrayed little interest in spirits while, in the 1500s and early 1600s, the Dutch and Germans and French across the Channel and even the Celts up north in Scotland and across the Irish Sea had gone on to develop extensive distilling industries.
But English colonists in Barbados were now making rum in quantity, and English colonists in Virginia and Maryland were turning out peach and apple brandy and they were even making rye whiskey in Massachusetts. It was time for the home country to pay attention, and it did. The London distillers had organized themselves into a guild and ordinary Londoners were starting to acquire the habit of dram-drinking.
So when the physicians prescribed, the distillers were ready to fill that prescription. It was a complex one, with enough botanicals to pique the interest of a modern craft gin-distiller: six different roots, from angelica to zedoary, plus the leaves of 14 other plants—including everything from sage and wormwood to mugwort, lesser centenary and scabious (it doesn’t specify whether that’s the fragrant, glossy, sweet or yellow scabious)—all infused together in white wine for three days and then distilled “in the month of May” (gotta get the astrology right, after all).
Continental physicians had been compounding similar Plague Waters for decades, but this one was the latest word and it was immediately put to the test. Not by everybody, mind you, or just anybody; it was top-shelf stuff, the latest in medical science and destined only for the elite. It went to people such as Lady Carteret, who graciously sent Samuel Pepys home with a bottle of it in July, 1665, as the plague was raging out of control (there’s a city in New Jersey named after her husband, who owned the whole colony for a time and gave it its name).
Unfortunately, although effective in theory, when actually set against Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the plague, the Plague-water of Mathias’s record was less than stellar. In fact, the stuff, well, it didn’t do shit. It didn’t take long for people to figure that out: in September of that year, when an apothecary accidentally sent a bottle to the Rev. Symon Patrick, rector of St. Paul’s church in Covent Garden, in place of a certain “plague drink” that a friend had ordered for him, he was not amused. “Never trouble them to send me any” again, he instructed her.
And yet it didn’t matter: for the next hundred years and more, pharmaceutical texts and distillers’ manuals printed recipes for spirituous Plague Waters. No matter that the plague of 1665-1666—the “Great Plague,” as it became known—killed between 60,000 and 100,000 Londoners without being slowed down in the slightest by the Plague Water or any of the dozens of other apothecaries’ remedies for it. No matter that the only thing that stopped it was the Great Fire of London, which burned out most of the city center in September of 1666, rats, fleas and all.
However, if we jump ahead to 1832 and across the Atlantic to New York, then in the throes of its first crippling epidemic of cholera, the water- and food-borne bacterial killer, we see that alchemically-inspired, multi-botanical distillates were finally considered obsolete for treating infectious diseases (people were still drinking them, to be sure, but they were doing it at the bar under the guise of “Gin Cocktail”). Medical opinion had finally shoved aside all the ruffles and ribbons and laid bare what was really important. Plague Water was out, and Brandy-and-Water was in—within strict limits, of course.
You couldn’t go self-medicating by guzzling down straight hooch, you see. At least, not before breakfast. The set of “Popular Directions on the Principal Means to be Employed Against the Cholera Morbus” that the New York American for the Country swiped from the Parisian Central Commission of Health (at the time, America was trying to emulate France, not Russia) and printed in June of that year was very clear on the topic:
“The use of ardent spirits taken alone, and before breakfast, a habit so common among the lower class of work-people and so hurtful at all times, becomes particularly fatal when Cholera prevails. Persons who have this habit should eat something, at least a piece of bread before swallowing the brandy.”
In New York, at least, the “lower class of work-people” were joined by a significant portion of the city’s lawyers and merchants and salesmen and journalists and what-have-you, who made a habit of toning their stomachs with a quick cocktail or two at the bar before breakfast. They weren’t about to give up their eye-openers, but they seem to have settled on brandy cut with water as the most healthful drink. And not like the French recommended, with “two spoonfuls of brandy to a pint of water,” but American-style, with at least as much of the firewater as the quencher.
Did this prevent cholera? Not in 1832 it didn’t. There was even one poor, intemperate son of toil who was reported to have “died of cholera after having drunk 8 or 10 glasses of brandy with water.” If less is no good, then more is no good, too. (I mean, I suppose it would have worked if you replaced every drop of your daily intake of water with brandy, but hey, dehydration’s every bit as much a killer as Vibrio cholerae, the bug in question.) And yet when the cholera returned in 1849, New Yorkers rushed to the same remedy, with the same results. Likewise, in 1877, when the New York Sun printed as a curiosity a political operative’s overheard miracle cure for a new, more insidious killer, tuberculosis, it launched a whole industry making “Rock & Rye,” which was nothing more than rock candy dissolved in straight rye whiskey. Medical value against Myobacterium tuberculosis, the T.B. bacillus? Nil.
We can—we do—look back on all of these people and think, “those poor, ignorant souls; if only they had known the real causes of disease and not entrusted themselves to quack remedies” and then congratulate ourselves to be living in the age of antibiotics, which can actually cure the plague, cholera and even tuberculosis, although that one’s extra stubborn.
But the world scoffs at such arrogance; kill bacteria and it will send you viruses. It’s one of the most basic principles of medicine that if you can treat the disease, you treat the disease, but if all you can treat are the symptoms, you treat those.
The thing about epidemics is each one is actually two diseases running in parallel: the thing that kills people, and the thing that infects their minds with fear and anxiety, sadness and helplessness, boredom and despair. And, since even the most virulent pathogen leaves a lot of survivors (the Black Death left two people behind for everyone it killed) and even the fastest-moving one still takes its time to work through the general population, at any given moment there are far more people infected with the mind-sickness.
As a disease, the mind-sickness is only curable or preventable to the extent that the pathogen is. The symptoms, however, can be somewhat alleviated in various ways. One of them, of course, is alcohol. A good, stiff drink is quite effective at pouring oil on a churning sea of troubled thoughts. Even better if you incorporate it into a daily ritual; a little rock to add to the wall we build every day to keep out the chaos.
Come six o’clock every day, give or take, I mix a round of drinks for myself and my wife and my (grown) daughter, if she’s around. I’m fortunate in that I can work at home, even if these days that often means writing the same paragraph over and over again because my brain is just too jumbled to work right, and six is when I call it quits. (Others have their own six o’clocks, about the timing of which I don’t judge.) It’s not just the alcohol that helps, although of course it does (I’ll get back to that in a minute). It’s the measuring and the stirring, the sitting and the slowly sipping, the talking and the listening. It’s the feeling of control, however fleeting; of holding the bad times at bay.
Yet, doctors still tell us we’re drinking too much and that alcohol is no solution to the epidemic and a danger in its own right. From the medical perspective, that’s not wrong. Alcohol is a seductive and powerful drug that’s easy to abuse, particularly in the concentrated form of distilled spirits, and too much of it is certainly injurious to the constitution. I’m not suggesting that a good way to deal with the coronavirus pandemic is to roll out of bed and into a Dry Martini or spend the day nipping on Old Grand-Dad. I mean, there might be a day—like I say, I’m not here to judge. But in general that’s not an effective long-term coping strategy.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be drunk to get alcohol’s calming effect. One of the benefits of building it into a daily ritual is the comforting effect of knowing that comfort is coming; that it can be deferred for a few hours because it’s waiting for you like Jeeves, holding a tray with a frosty pitcher and a delicate stemmed glass.
Those people back in the day who took their daily doses of Plague Water or Brandy and Water or Rock and Rye even though they knew it did nothing to cure the plague or cholera or T.B.? Maybe they weren’t so dumb. Maybe, just maybe, they knew that the disease was a death sentence against which there was little that doctors could do, and that a glass of something boozy, taken without overdoing it (like the guy with his eight brandy and Waters) could help them yet again face the daily round of Russian Roulette that is life during an epidemic. Hey, it works for me.
- 1.5 oz Whatever dark, unflavored and unsweetened spirit you’ve got: bourbon, rye, Jamaican rum, Cognac, Armagnac, Crown Royal, añejo tequila, whatever. Or gin.
- 1 oz Red vermouth
- .5 oz Herbal liqueur: Chartreuse (yellow or green), Strega, Bénédictine, Jägermeister, Drambuie, etcetera
- 6 dashes Angostura or Peychaud’s bitters (or three dashes of each)
- Glass: Cocktail
- Garnish: 1 finger band-aid sized strip Lemon peel, if you’ve got it.
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with cracked ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist a lemon peel over the top and discard. Unclench.